Miércoles 25 de Octubre de 2006, Ip nº 176

Astronauts offer etiquette lessons to space tourists
Por Kelly Young

Don't look directly at the Sun. Don't play with your grape juice. And don't hog prime viewing space at the windows.

This was the advice several astronauts and space doctors gave to prospective space tourists on Tuesday at the International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico, US.

Many of the next space explorers will not be chosen from the highly trained, highly accomplished astronaut corps. Instead, they will be average – though wealthy – Joes who will shell out millions of dollars for trips into orbit.

So the astronauts gave them hard-earned lessons about practical – and sometimes delicate – issues that crop up in space.

Like clean up the toilet after you're done using it. "If you don't take care of your own responsibilities, tension can build up, especially on a long-duration space flight," says former shuttle astronaut Tom Jones, who is now on the advisory board for Space Adventures, the company that currently books orbital flights for tourists on Russia's Soyuz rocket.

Tension in such close confines could even lead to the space version of air rage – something space tourism companies may have to develop procedures to deal with.

Close quarters
"This would be a real drag to happen on your space tourism flight," says Jay Buckey, a former astronaut who studies space physiology at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, US. To prevent conflict, tourists should not spend too much time at the windows during their limited time above the Earth.

Speaking of close quarters, Jones artfully sidestepped a question about sex in space from the audience (see Out-of-this-world sex could jeopardise missions). "I would like to leave that for the commercial sector," Jones said.

Space sickness will likely be a big issue for novice space flyers – even highly trained test pilots still get queasy in the new environment of microgravity. Buckey says medication will probably be part of the solution.

When NASA scientists started giving anti-motion sickness drugs to students who flew experiments on the C-9 aircraft that simulates weightlessness, they noticed a much lower rate of motion sickness than in students who had not taken the drug.

Space catheters
But the drug they inject to quell space sickness, promethazine – sold under the brand name Phenergan, has its own set of problems. In space, Phenergan has been linked to urinary retention. Four crew members have had to have catheters inserted into their bladders during spaceflights.

Do not look directly at the Sun in space, the flight surgeons cautioned. One space tourist had burned his retina on his mission because he had taken pictures of the Sun with a high-magnification lens. Flight surgeons typically do not reveal the identity of crew members due to patient confidentiality.

The space veterans also offered practical advice to save time and frustration in orbit. They suggested women with long hair might cut it if they are planning to be in space for more than a couple of days. On shuttle flights, some women with lengthy manes spend about one hour every three days carefully shampooing their hair, then dabbing it dry. This is time that could be spent looking out the window at Earth.

Fingernail clippings
They also said duct tape proves useful for capturing dental floss or fingernail clippings that might otherwise float around the cabin and become a nuisance to other passengers. Shuttle crews can go through several rolls of tape on a single mission.

They also provided warnings about some activities that often prove irresistible to keep from doing in space, such as playing with liquids – which form a sphere in the absence of gravity.

On one of Jones's shuttle flights, a sphere of grape juice splattered against the walls of the cabin, leaving residue for the crew to mop up. Later, Jones and his next shuttle crew were checking out that same orbiter back at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, US.

"I was embarrassed to find our grape spots six months later were still on the walls and switch panels," he confessed.

So the lesson for tourists is if you're going to play with your drinks, avoid coloured beverages. "It's best to use plain water," says shuttle astronaut Mario Runco. "Water doesn't colour the cabin."


  18/10/2006. New Scientist Magazine.